DVD Extras for this story on the 14-episode box sets include:
The Character StrengthThe opening hook largely relies on the humorous possibilities of our main character the Doctor for its entertainment value. Pretty much everything else is of middling interest at best, and diving into the past on our third Earthbound adventure in a row wasn't much inspiring. However, the final reveal in this hook is classic enough to have become THE defining moment of the season's launch trailers, the only moment in the trailers to sell itself without an excess of quick editing and a frenetic audio track, a moment that can sink in more deeply and quietly and powerfully. Good.
Mind you, I had absolutely no idea who Maisie Williams was before cracking into this season's DVD box set, nor had I seen any trailers. From the perspective of someone simply coming to the episodes cold, encountering this actress for the first time on these episodes, I can say that she did do an impressive job here, and brought a very worthwhile character to life very successfully.
And indeed, the real strength of this episode is simply the Doctor and the Ashildr character, now under the name of the Lady Me, having quite an extended dialogue exploring the concept of immortality in general and the 800-year-long life that Ashildr has gone on to live in particular. Questions of character crop up here as well - in some senses we get a repeat of some of the ideas that saw a lot of screen time the previous year, namely whether or not the long-lived "immortal" person would continue to be a "good" person. I suggest that such a question can really bite and be poignant when thrust upon a relatively new guest character like Ashildr who might fall on either side of the equation, and the audience can be kept guessing, whereas putting the Doctor at the center of the question has predictably only one correct answer for the show. Capaldi's Doctor is actually served much better by exploring this question as a co-sufferer offering experience and wisdom to support Ashildr's struggle with this issue, while we successfully remain totally uncertain as to what level of success Ashildr will have with the problem, than by trying to make us guess how the ultimately formulaically heroic Doctor will succeed with the issue.
Thankfully, the Doctor and Ashildr are not confined to one lab as was the case with Davros earlier this season, and so they are able to continue their rich dialogue while wandering through a variety of settings and external challenges, without them becoming quite so obvious as external distractions. Additionally, Ashildr takes on a variety of names including "the Lady Me" and the Knightmare, while having some changes in costume to match that can make you doubt you're still looking at the same character. All excellent for maintaining a rich tapestry of variety in the story. Indeed one of my favourite sequences here is simply the long montage of events that covers the highlights of what has happened to this character between the end of the last episode and the beginning of this one - ultimately a sequence of higher narrative quality and interest than most of the previous episode had been.
The dialogue itself is very nicely written, with a lot of good depth to it, and Peter Capaldi and Maisie Williams perform exceptionally well with it, knocking the most important scenes out of the park, and having enough fun with some of the less important, action-oriented business to make their pairing very enjoyable and compelling to watch. Great stuff.
The Plot WeaknessPerhaps the great downside of this episode is that, coupled with such excellent atypical strengths, it tries to graft a bog-standard backyard-alien-of-the-week A-plot onto itself, a plot that still tries unsuccessfully to dominate the story's structure in the end.
The central quest bringing both the Doctor and Ashildr together to search for an alien amulet is good stuff, and works quite well in giving them something active to do as they discuss and explore their issues.
Leandro, the very predictably-alien figure hiding in the bushes, sadly never becomes all that interesting, and really can't considering he only has time to satisfy the bare minimum requirements of backyard-alien formulae. As with the previous episode's Norse-like Mire, Leandro's production design is quite good, from make-up to costume, and in this case he manages to look like something really cool out of medieval legend.
The writing also scores a point with me in that Bayer Notation is used correctly here. Delta Leonis is a real star that you can find on your charts. Perhaps each viewer will have to decide for themselves if sufficient reason can be thought to be there for our words Leo and Lion to have become associated with large feline features because we met characters from this place at an earlier time, or if we wound up with a talking Lion from Delta Leonis named Leandro because there just wasn't much imagination put into this part of the story.
In terms of other characters, no one else really seems to stand out well with the sole exception of Sam Swift the Quick - and he is a strange case. It feels to me that he doesn't really work that well in his first scene as a rival highwayman, and generated little interest.
I will say though that there is sufficient charm in his final sequences at the gallows for him to rise to a new level and pop out nicely. The entire concept of staving off death by telling jokes to the crowd is all at once nicely subverting to traditional action-adventure formulae, enjoyably humorous content to watch while realistically portraying that most jokes work while some are stinkers, and it evokes a nice metaphor for today's stand-up comics who may "live or die" based on their performances on stage. Nice to see the Doctor coming along to give him a few assists, and ultimately, Sam becomes a quite likeable character via this sequence. But, this instinctively feels like the kind of scene one would want to place in the middle of a story rather than the end.
Ultimately the real energy of this story has been so squarely and strongly focused on two characters' exploration of their lives and issues, that the final challenge from Leandro and the Delta Leonians manages to feel considerably less exciting and underwhelming by contrast. They never got the degree of development that alien forces need to be successful on this show, and an otherwise very powerful story winds up going out with a bit of a whimper here. Mind you, there are important and clever bits here for Ashildr and others to perform, with her sharing a final fix with the Doctor as they both put their minds together to come up with a solution. This plot resolution maintains its logic right the way through better than many of Steven Moffat's stories. But it is less exciting than most of the rest of the episode has been. The previous episode did a good deal better with its main plot with the Mire, although there's really not much more that can be done on this show with backyard-alien-of-the-week ideas crammed into a mere 45-minutes. I get the feeling that this story really should have gone in a totally different direction action-wise, because it really had a unique tiger by the tail with the two lead characters, and if it had had an A-plot more definitively connected to the character ideas that were so strong within it, it could have been an even greater story overall.
Thankfully, the coda still comes up trumps with some very good scenes, and the story goes out on a high. Most strange is the fact that we don't see Clara all episode long, until it is all over and she makes a little appearance in the coda. Not sure what that was about, as she doesn't seem to take over from Capaldi for any episode this season to double-bank the stories, but it still works out all right here.
I also want to give the episode a point for some very unusual and creative use of the psychic paper, which I enjoyed. Keep the variety coming!
This story is available on DVD and Blu-ray:
Bonus features include:
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